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India, led by young Indians

India, led by young Indians
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First Published: Wed, Nov 16 2011. 01 15 AM IST

File photo Reuters
File photo Reuters
Updated: Thu, Nov 17 2011. 10 40 AM IST
At the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Mumbai this weekend, amid talks of global economic malaise and Indian policy paralysis, there was a bit of good news. Young Indians are playing key roles in the functioning of the government, though not in India, but in the US.
Anil Kakani, a senior adviser at the US treasury, and Aneesh Chopra, chief technology officer of the US, spoke at WEF. Outside of elected politics, it would be tough to find similarly well-positioned young Indians in India.
File photo Reuters
The government of India needs fresh infusion of blood and ideas. Be it WEF or the World Social Forum, many young and capable Indians—from those who have started successful non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or private companies, managed businesses or social enterprises to those who have taught at the best universities—want to be a part of the government. They would be more than willing to serve the government for a few years, but they can’t. It’s nearly impossible for them to find a way into government services.
It shouldn’t be that way. The Indian government can and should launch a fellowship programme, which gives Indians the opportunity to serve meaningful roles in government services for a period of two to three years (call it the Nehru Fellowship).
The Nehru Fellowship would place young Indians in various ministries in technocratic positions. The US has a similar programme called the White House Fellowship. White House Fellows programme attracts the best Americans to serve the White House for a period of one year. White House Fellows have gone on to become senators, CEOs, deans, and NGO leaders.
In India, the Indian Administrative Services, or IAS, is almost the only way, outside of active political participation, to join and influence government policy. Involvement of outsiders has been limited, but proven successful.
Among the Prime Minister’s and finance minister’s key advisors are two leading academicians, Raghuram Rajan and Kaushik Basu. Years of outside research and service have helped inform the decisions of the government.
But perhaps no better example exists of the capability and desire of Indian youth to serve than seen in the unique identification (UID) programme. Amid all the political paralysis talks within the government, one project that continues to gain traction day after day is UID. Leave aside, for a moment, whether you are in favour of the programme. Just look at how it has come about. 
One of India’s most successful executives, Nandan Nilekani, was given a free hand to implement the programme. The cache of working with him, the government’s promise of a free hand and the belief that something would be achieved attracted young Indians from across the country to work with Nilekani. And for very little to no compensation.
Now imagine, a similar programme in education, health or water. Take a thoughtful leader, a person of action, for each of these sectors and give them an initiative that they can drive and own. Teach for India is making strides in promoting the teaching vocation to the young. Countless doctors and engineers are solving the complex problem of affordable healthcare and clean water for all. Let them join the government for a while and drive change.
Our system of governance, inherited from the British, has IAS officers at the apex level. They are the technocrats advising politicians on almost all matters. The opportunity for outside technocrats in India becomes limited. In contrast, the US offers a wealth of opportunities for people outside the government to come and serve. One could argue, maybe the US has too much of a revolving door in government services, but we have, for the most part, the door shut in India.
The supply of young talented (or for that matter experienced) Indians who want to work for the government is limitless. Take this supply and institutionalize it. Have a programme where people can come in for a few years and work for the government. Make it a competitive process where only 50 or so odd people are accepted a year (the programme could expand in later years). Give these people real responsibilities and power, and see what difference it makes.
And this could be both at the federal and state levels. If Nitish Kumar said he was willing to hire and empower 10 youngsters to work in different programmes in Bihar, what do you think the level of applicants would be? I bet it would be among the most talented group of people not just in India, but on earth.
The only thing stopping talented young Indians working for the government is the lack of opportunity. Open this closed door, and a flood of talented people will want to enter.
Prashant Agrawal, a principal at a management consultancy, writes on public policy issues in India and internationally.
Your comments are welcome atsummaryjudgement@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Nov 16 2011. 01 15 AM IST